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Are Political Beliefs Predetermined at Birth?

A weird new social science tries to explain our polarized politics

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images News

For two centuries, the most advanced thinkers have claimed biology and physiology could explain the most complex human behaviors and even beliefs. In the early 19th century, physicians thought that a person’s character was determined by the shape of their skull. During the last century, social scientists believed that a person’s race was a dependable predictor of their intelligence. These earlier efforts have either been discredited or widely questioned, but the attempt to link biology to behavior and belief has continued unabated. A case in point is the new field of genopolitics.

Most people would say that a person’s political beliefs and actions reflect the influence of parents, peers, and colleagues, as well as a person’s reflection based on reading and observation. But over the last two decades, political scientists, and psychologists have used genetics and neuroscience to claim that people’s political beliefs are predetermined at birth. Genetic inheritance, they argue, helps to explain why some people are liberal and others conservative; some people turn out to vote; and why some people favor and others oppose abortion and gay rights. The field itself has a name—genopolitics—and it is taking political science by storm. In the last four years alone, over 40 journal articles on the subject have appeared in academic journals.

Prominent political journalists have also endorsed this trend. In a New York Times column, Thomas Edsall writes that genopolitics “has the potential to provide insight into a host of critical matters, including the roots of hostility between the contemporary right and left, and into how political parties alter their stands on issues in both practical and rhetorical terms.” Chris Mooney, the author of Unscientific America, finds the links between genetics and politics “amazing,” and gushes that “if this is what the science says for now, there is only one thing to do: more science.” Laudatory articles about the new field have appeared inthe Huffington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Psychology Today, The Economist, Mother Jones, Nature , and ABC News, as well as in Nature, Science Daily and ScienceNordic.

Are these social scientists onto something, as Edsall and Mooney have suggested? Is liberalism or conservatism inherited the way, say, that a predisposition to breast cancer or Parkinson’s disease is? Or is there reason to be skeptical about this new field of genopolitics? I am, to say the least, not an expert in genetics (nor are many of the political pundits endorsing this new field). I know something, however, about political history, psychology, and what used to be called the philosophy of mind; and I have consulted people who do know something about genetics. Having now read a fair amount of the material in this new field, I am deeply skeptical about its claims. Like its discredited predecessors, these new field may represent an attempt to explain away rather than explain complicated human behaviors and beliefs.

The essay that laid the groundwork for genopolitics was written by political scientists John K. Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing and appeared in the American Political Science Review in May 2005. It was entitled, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” The authors claimed the persistent differences between liberals and conservatives could be explained by genetic inheritance. After its publication, the editor of the journal speculated “time will tell whether it will emerge among the most important articles the APSR has ever published.” It has been followed by numerous studies that have built upon its approach.

Alford, Funk, and Hibbing claim that Americans are divided into liberals and conservatives. The differences between them can be discerned through survey questions that political scientists and psychologists have devised. These surveys ask for instant yes-no reactions on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, nuclear power, socialism, capitalism, X-rated movies, and immigration. The social scientists and those who have followed their lead argue in turn that these current differences are rooted in deeper, transcultural differences that go back centuries.

Alford, Funk, and Hibbing label the ultimate difference in orientation “absolutist” vs. “contextualist.” The “absolutist” is characterized, among other things, by a “relatively strong suspicion of out-groups … a yearning for in-group unity, and strong leadership.” Other advocates of genopolitics accept the dichotomy but use different terms to characterize it. For instance, psychologists Steven Ludeke, Wendy Johnson, and Thomas J. Bouchard, writing in Personality and Individual Differences, identify the conservative pole of this dichotomy with “Traditionalism.” “The antagonism between two primal mindsets,” Hibbing, Alford, and Kevin B. Smith wrote in Behavioral and Brain Science this year, “certainly pervades human history.”

According to the social scientists, these two primal mindsets, and their current manifestation in liberalism and conservatism, are based upon genetic differences. The mindsets are, Alford, Funk and Hibbing write, “expressions of a deep-seated genetic divide in human behavioral predispositions and capabilities.” Of course, if individuals with the conservative mindset mated regularly with individuals with the liberal mindset, the divide might have disappeared. But the political scientists argue that the divide is perpetuated through “assortative mating” in which individuals seek out spouses with the relevant political genes and then perpetuate them. The political divide is then transmitted over generations through genetic inheritance.

The principal method that political scientists use to demonstrate genetic inheritance is twin studies. These studies compare the attitudes of identical twins with those of fraternal twins. If identical twins display a trait, belief, or attitude to a greater extent than fraternal twins, then the greater similarity is thought to stem from the greater genetic similarity of the identical twins. On the basis of answers to survey questions, the political scientists claim to have found that identical twins are more consistently conservative or liberal than fraternal twins.

Some researchers have focused on single genes, but the leading researchers have increasingly rejected that. “Certainly, there is not a gene for liberalism or any political trait,” political scientists Peter K. Hatemi, and Rose McDermott write. They have endorsed Alford, Funk and Hibbing’s contention that different combinations of genes can create “broad but distinct political phenotypes” that entail specific attitudes toward specific political questions. These phenotypes consist of a “suite” or “cluster” or “package” of political attitudes that can also be handed down genetically from parent to child and perpetuated over generations, as people choose husbands and wives who have a similar genetic makeup and “similar social and political attitudes.”

The political scientists don’t deny that the “environment”—which includes parents, school, work, campaign debates, and the media—influences people’s political judgment, but according to Hibbing, Smith, and Alford, the “embodied predispositions constitute inertial psychological and physiological set points that serve as baselines for behaviors and attitudes.” According to Alford, Funk, and Hibbing, only genetics can account for “the durability of the liberal-conservative spectrum in the United States.” In other words, one cannot understand contemporary politics without understanding its genetic foundations.

Is this theory valid? There are two kinds of questions that have been raised about genopolitics. One kind is scientific, and has to do with its methodology, particularly its use of twin studies, and with the assumptions it makes about genetics. The most notable responses have been by Duke political scientist Evan Charney, with whom I consulted on this piece, Harvard political scientist William English, Harvard geneticists Corey Morris and Jon Beckwith, and Tel Aviv Medical School professor Doron Shultziner. The other kind of question concerns the social scientists’ assumptions about politics and political history.

Researchers have been using twin studies for over 80 years to prove that certain beliefs or behaviors are inherited. In using these studies, social scientists have to assume that identical and fraternal twins are raised in similar environments, and to the extent there are differences, they don’t affect the prevalence of the trait in question. This is termed the “equal environment assumption.” If the identical twins were more likely than the fraternal twins to have been raised in the same environment (same friends, experiences, treated the same way by parents and others), then it is possible that their greater political agreement is the result of their experiencing more similar environments rather than of their having more similar genes.

Critics of the twin studies point out that it is likely that identical twins were raised in a more equal environment, and that these more equal environments led to greater similarities in behavior. Morris and Beckwith write of identical twins that “because of their identical appearance … [they] are treated and interacted with by parents and the outside world much more similarly than are [fraternal] twins or ordinary siblings.” They also “share closer bonds.” These factors, they write, “could well influence the behavioral development of the children in the direction of great similarity.”

Some researchers have demonstrated that twin studies can lead to perverse results that undermine the “equal environment assumption.” Mimicking the methodology of the advocates of genopolitics, they have shown that identical twin teenagers spend more time texting on a cell phone than fraternal twins or that identical twins are more likely to adhere to the same religious faiths. If you follow the methodological assumptions of genopolitics, you would have to conclude that these traits are the products of genetic inheritance.

The social scientists also make assumptions about the relationship between genetic and environmental causes. They assume that they can isolate genetic from environmental influence, and assign genetic influence a specific quantitative effect on people’s political beliefs. But geneticists do not believe that genes act in a single determined way. Instead, they think genes interact with other genes and with innumerable environmental influences. A person, for instance, might be genetically predisposed to incur an illness, but will only do so if exposed to a certain virus. It is implausible to assume that a gene, or set of genes, taken by themselves, can dictate a certain attitude or belief.

The social scientists acknowledge that genes function interactively with the environment, but in their theories, they treat them as independent variables and assign certain percentages to genetic and environmental influence. They also believe that the combination of genes will produce a consistent political view. But that flies in the face of genetic theory as well as political history, which is a record of constant change. Shultziner writes, “When the environment changes, as is often the case, the expression and content (e.g. political preference) of the trait in question could easily change as well.”


Finally, the proponents of genopolitics assume that there is a dichotomy in American politics today between conservatives and liberals that can be projected backwards and globally and that can be explained genetically. “The package of attitudes,” Alford, Funk, and Hibbing write, “held, for example, by conservatives in the modern United States is remarkably similar to that held by conservative in other culture and at earlier times in American history.” That assumption is highly questionable.

The current division between liberals and conservatives can be overstated. While the proponents of genopolitics might try to divide Americans into liberals and conservatives, the electorate is much more complicated. Pew has recently divided the electorate into eight different categories. At a minimum, one can conjure up leftwing and rightwing populists, libertarians, and moderates, as well as liberals and conservatives. The social scientists identify conservatism with “obedience to traditional authority,” but how then could Tennessee Senator Rand Paul, or a Tea Party member seeking the impeachment of the president, be called a conservative? And these questions only bear on the present. Were the New England Puritans conservatives or liberals? What about Napoleon? Was the prophet Elijah who denounced the Israelites for their more cosmopolitan ways a liberal or a conservative?

The political scientists might respond that they are seeking a deeper divide between mindsets that isn’t necessarily reflected in current or past terminology. In this sense, their theory depends on defining a conservative or liberal phenotype—an underlying attitude—that entails specific positions that conservatives and liberals are supposed to take, but is not defined by them. The defined attitude itself would entail specific liberal or conservative positions on issues that fall unambiguously on one side or another of the great dichotomy. But they fail to do that.

In specifying what “absolutist” or “traditionalist” or “contextualist” attitudes are, the advocates of genopolitics offer definitions that are far from unambiguous politically. For instance, the researchers say that the conservative phenotype includes a “yearning for in-group unity.” But for this formulation to work, this group can’t be a union, and must be something like a church congregation. But the church congregation can’t be that of black Pentecostal church whose members are loyal Democrats, but a white evangelical megachurch. Similarly, if the “suspicion of outgroups” is to define a conservative phenotype, it must apply to suspicions of immigrants, but not of corporate CEOs, rightwing thinktanks, or billionaire oil barons.

To get around these objections, Hibbing, Smith, and Alford have recently introduced a new underlying essence that distinguishes the conservative from the liberal mindset, which they call a “negativity bias,” which characterizes conservatives, and which they claim goes back at least to “Sparta and Athens.” A negativity bias, they write, “is the principle that negative events are more alien, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events.” They speculate that this negativity bias could have arisen in the Pleistocene epoch—evidence, perhaps, that many conservatives are really cavemen in modern garb. But as Evan Charney points out, what is perceived as negative depends on the eye of the beholder. Liberals regard conceal and carry gun laws as a threat; conservatives do not. Liberals regard global warming as a threat; conservatives do not. “Some of the most contentious debate in political life,” Charney writes, “are over whether the very same things are negative or positive.”

One could, of course, make a case that certain kinds of attitudes such as a fear of death or of the unknown can be found across cultures, and one could argue, as I have, that these kind of attitudes can have an unconscious influence over peoples’ political opinions. But that is a different point from saying that there are specific attitudes or mindsets that are genetic or that yield, depending upon their predominance, liberal or conservative (or for that matter socialist, anarchist, libertarian, fascist, and monarchist) political outlooks and judgments. How attitudes, fears, and hopes play out in politics depends on the objects of fears or hope; and the objects themselves are given by the environment not by genetic inheritance.

The real question posed by genopolitics is why so many respectable academics have fallen under its spell? One reason may be strictly professional. Academics in the social sciences are always on the look out for ways in which they can ground their squishy subjective speculations in the hard terrain of science. The more mathematical symbols and complicated flow-charts or arcane graphs a journal article contains the better. Even literature professors have looked toward obscurantist continental philosophers to turn novels and poems into “texts” that can be analyzed and charted. Twentieth century philosophy is littered with attempts to reduce language to mathematic formulations. The drive to reduce human behavior to neurons and genes is only the latest expression of this drive to turn social scientists into real scientists.

The other reason may have to do with contemporary politics. Political scientists have been understandably puzzled by the polarization and paralysis that has afflicted American politics since the 1990s. They don’t understand why in the late 20th and early 21st century, a conservative movement has gained traction, particularly among working class voters who would appear to have an economic interest in siding with liberals. Conservative success in the 2004 election seems to have been particularly puzzling and prompted several attempts at geopolitical speculation, including an essay, “Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout,” by political scientists James Fowler and Christopher Dawes.

Like Thomas Frank, the political scientists want to answer the question, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Frank found it in the deceptive practices of the Republican right. The political scientists have looked for it in neuroscience and genetics. But this recent attempt to answer difficult questions of political history by means of biology has led these political scientists down an ideological rabbit hole once populated by phrenologists and racial theorists. They need to come up for air and to recognize that history, with all its complicated and unexpected plot lines, still offers the best clue to what the past means and the future may hold.